Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are the foundation of the social safety net for Americans with disabilities. Both provide cash benefits, and because neither program is limited to specific impairments or to workers in particular occupations, as is the case with many public and private disability plans, they are broadly accessible to the American people and the most expensive of the nation's disability benefit programs. Excluding expenditures for health care, DI and SSI combined account for almost three-quarters of annual federal spending on the disabled (U.S. GAO 1999).

Disability benefits policy, though, has long been fraught with controversy. Conservatives have resisted broad income support for disabled workers, preferring, instead, workplace accommodations and limited public assistance. On the other hand, bureaucrats, the federal courts, and interest groups have been instrumental in expanding both social insurance coverage and public assistance to the disabled. As a result of their concerted efforts, DI and SSI have grown irrespective of which party controlled the White House or Congress. Today no other disability benefits program comes close to rivaling them, regardless of whether the measure is persons enrolled or dollars spent. Expansion, however, is not the same as largess, because, despite dramatic growth in DI and SSI since their enactment, poverty and unemployment still remain prevalent among Americans with disabilities.

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